I’m planning to make a dinner reservation soon at One If By Land, Two If By Sea, a restaurant at 17 Barrow Street just off Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. I’m not going for the food; I’m going because the restaurant is in an old carriage house that served for about 55 years as my great-grandfather’s blacksmith shop, and then as the nerve center of my mother’s family as it spread out into the boroughs from Manhattan. It’s a part of my New York identity-the trump card I pull out in those contests among native New Yorkers about whose lineage stretches furthest back. It helps that the place links me to the term “blacksmith,” a profession with a nice old-time feel, like wainwright or cobbler.
William Aloysius Conway, which was my great-grandfather’s name and was the name of his business, bought the place from a retiring smith around 1914. Automobiles were swiftly outpacing horses; fashioning horseshoes was about to become a money loser. So he concentrated on getting work with newspaper delivery horses, and he scored lucrative contracts with the police and fire departments for troublesome horses that were hard to shoe. His business card hangs in a little frame on a wall at my mother’s house. Beneath his name is a line that reads “LAME AND INTERFERING HORSES A SPECIALTY.”
He made headlines one day, when Charles Lindbergh took off on his famous transatlantic flight. For good luck, the aviator was given a giant horseshoe my great-grandfather forged for the occasion. When he was interviewed, my great-grandfather waved the reporter off, offering dryly that if Lindbergh got to the other side it would have nothing to do with the horseshoe.
In the 1930′s he retired, partly: He spent winters in the workshop making decorative wrought-iron objects, and summers upstate in Warwick, N.Y., where relatives had a farm.
When Conway finally closed up shop, the family rented the downstairs to some Italians, who turned it into a restaurant called, provocatively, “17.” It was already a sign of change. In the 1920′s and 1930′s, I’ve been told, Cornelia Street was the line that divided Little Italy from the Irish neighborhood. My mother was not allowed to walk the dicey block east toward Sixth Avenue alone. “17″ remained open through the 1960′s, when my great-uncle and -aunt sold the building and retired to Florida.
My mother often told us about the Barrow Street place: a light-red-brick, two-story, colonial-era building that had once served as the carriage house for Aaron Burr’s estate, which occupied much of the present Greenwich Village.
“That’s where they brought the horses in,” my mother would say, attempting in her often less-than-completely-useful way to describe the large workshop with its great doors opening onto Barrow Street. Upstairs were all the living rooms, she said.
In its present incarnation as a high-end restaurant, large oak doors open up to the street, punched through in the center to accommodate antique-looking, ripply glass windowpanes. As a teenager, when many of my nights were spent trying to convince bartenders in Greenwich Village that I was 21, I happened upon the place almost accidentally one evening. Since then, I’ve often peered in and been able to just see the large room through the elaborate fronds that sit on top of the grand piano at the front of the dining area.
Looking at the building from the street, it’s difficult to imagine my grandfather’s large family quartered in the tiny upstairs portion of the shop. The house was always described to me as a magnificent place, and it certainly is a beautiful building, reclaimed and cleaned up like most of the neighborhood. But as a family home and working blacksmith’s shop, it looked to me like it must have been a bit on the Dickensian side-hardly the idyllic setting my mother remembers from the Sundays of her youth.
It’s just as hard to reconcile my mother’s stories with the now-trendy neighborhood, stripped of its utilitarian qualities and reclaimed as one Block Beautiful after another. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine Irish-Americans in Manhattan at all. I have no memory of when Chelsea was an Irish neighborhood, let alone when Greenwich Village was. The Village, to me, was a place I’d go to escape my home on Roosevelt Island and the structure of family life, or to find some feeling of youthful urbanity to replace the ethnicity I felt all around me otherwise.
One If By Land, with its cathedral-height ceilings in the front room, fresh flowers, plaid carpeting and that large piano, consistently gets good reviews, but it’s not my kind of place. For one thing, it’s one of the most popular spots for marriage proposals. To me, it looks very peaceful and nice-like a funeral home or rectory.
But I prefer the caterwaul of Clinton Street or East Second Street, and the loud and indelicate clatter of silverware on china to the white noise of soft piano and the sound of careful, mannered eating.
A few years ago my aunt, who was visiting from Pennsylvania, decided to pay a visit to the old family place on Barrow Street. There was some conversation with the restaurant staff about the building and its history. According to my mother’s report, the drinks were not free.
I don’t think that can be the only reason that the visit felt a bit like a rejection to us. Really, it was only a slightly embarrassing reminder that this is a transient city. Even deep roots in the city are pulled out and scattered, eventually; old places give way to the new, and our ancestors die. Yet like a microcosm of the much more mobile United States, there is a sort of New York family that moves from Manhattan to the boroughs and back again in the course of generations, but never leaves.
I am the first and only person in my extended family to live in Manhattan since the house on Barrow Street was sold. Recently, I went to the opening of an art gallery around the corner from my apartment on the Lower East Side, which had an adjoining apartment.
There, I met a couple who were having an uncanny experience. The woman was pointing toward a platform that had been built above the bathroom.
“That’s where we used to sleep!” she said. It turned out that she and her husband lived for many years in the ground-floor apartment of the building. The neighborhood had changed entirely; the woman told me that she remembered when the streets were flooded with drug dealers. It looked as though it was difficult for her to stand in this place and not feel the past catching up, fast as wild horses, to the present-an exhilarating and vaguely frightening approach.
Now she lived in Soho and ran a restaurant.
“What restaurant?” I asked the woman.
She described it in vague terms that nevertheless made it clear which restaurant it was.
“Is it at 17 Barrow Street?” I asked. It was. I told her all about William Conway and Cornelia Street and the lame and interfering horses, and we both marveled at the chance meeting. She told me the place was haunted by Aaron Burr’s ghost-a tale that must have developed after my great-uncle sold the building in 1969.
With an earnest graciousness, she and her husband invited me to a complimentary dinner at One If By Land. I assured her that I would take her up on it.
Now all I have to do is call.
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